Over the past 40-plus years, Christians and conservatives have been admonishing our culture about the importance of family-centric ideals and practices. Here is an excerpt from the National Republican Convention Platform in 1976:
Families must continue to be the foundation of our nation.
Families – not government programs – are the best way to make sure our children are properly nurtured, our elderly are cared for, our cultural and spiritual heritages are perpetuated, our laws are observed, and our values are preserved.
This is what some mark as the beginning of a cultural descent toward losing the perspective that families are an irreplaceable institution in a successful society.
Of course, Christians have known this all along. From Eden, God caused two distinct individuals to become “one flesh” 1, forming the foundation for a family. Children are commanded to “honor your father and mother”2, that their teachings are a “garland to grace your head”3. Wives and children are “a blessing for the man who fears the Lord”4 and husbands are to be faithful servants of their families. The Christian heritage has long recognized God wisdom by instituting the family and entrusting individuals to its care.
Once upon a time, most societies would have valued family cohesiveness. Today the value of the family is at best sentimental, perhaps overrated, and at worst oppressive. The reasoning may be different in different cases, but public episodes of rejecting the family institution make this fact all the more clear.
Abolish the Family
In one of the most dramatic arguments, Sophie Lewis, who claims herself a feminist theorist, argues that the family should be abolished for reasons of economic injustice. Her view, in line with 20th century Marxism, is that pregnancy and mothering represent an economic exploitation of women’s work. This is because surrogate mothers (those paid to carry someone else’s baby) are paid, and normal mothers are not. Therefore, a normal mother’s time and effort in pregnancy, labor and delivery, and motherhood is seen as an uncompensated “burden” placed upon mothers. The idea that motherhood is a “natural” outcome of pregnancy is what “forces” mothers to bear that work, so in Sophie’s view, this “natural” idea should be abolished:
It’s a central idea to feminism anyway, that mothers aren’t natural entities; they’re making choices to look after this other person. […] That’s why it’s so valuable to denaturalize the mother-child bond. To do anything otherwise is to devalue that work.
Because Sophie Lewis piggy backs off Marxist economic ideologies, she (like all good Marxists) has forced all aspects of life into a class struggle, including traditional family relationships. All of our work and burdens of labor should be rewarding and compensated or else we are being oppressed. Furthermore, the thought that carrying a child for 9 months naturally obligates a woman to be a mother is now a disgraceful view toward women. Women should be able to decide if they want to “mother” the child they carried, or give it away. The same way motherhood before conception is a choice, motherhood after conception should be as well. The “family ties” are not natural.
Whereas giving up a child was once a last resort, and adopting a child was an act of pure grace, children being passed around becomes the new normal in Sophie’s world. That is because in her view no human being can “belong” to another. So there is absolutely no expectation of familial ties.
By now, this should be seen as completely backward thinking. But it follows the same logic that we see being carried out in many areas involving the family. Sophie’s views start from a classic Marxist and Communist view that every part of life is about a ruling class dominating a working class. This resonates so well with many folks because it supports the more exhaustive goal of a completely autonomous and atomized individual being the highest good.
In these perspectives, the family structure is an unwarranted hinderance to the freedom of the individual.
Families Aren’t So Useful Anymore
Just look at other instances of rejecting the family and we see the same themes.
Earlier this year in Ohio, a transgender teen was taken away from the custody of her parents because they did not allow her to receive hormone treatments as part of her new gender identity. Gender is today a vital part of a person’s “identity”, which is protected at all costs.
Even though studies show that 80 to 95 percent of children come to accept their biological sex, or a study found that 61 percent of transgender young adults experience an increase in popularity when transitioning, or another study showed that most people with gender distress suffer from additional mental health issues. These issues cannot get in the way of giving a person whatever they want, as illogical as it may be.
For Pride Month, CNN ran a story about titled I was married with 2 kids when I realized I was gay, where a woman in her 30’s is celebrated for divorcing her husband and leaving her family because she came out as a lesbian. Her courage is lauded for not letting a family with children keep her from living her true identity. She quips:
Our family structure just looks a little different than it used to. We spend most holidays together, attend parent-teacher conferences, we even have plans to take the kids to Disney World in the fall.
I guess a trip to Disney World will make a family that was broken apart for selfish reasons feel all better. Now that’s some Disney magic!!
These stories exemplify the cultural trajectory towards autonomous individuals with no ties to family, community, church, or God. The reason for the diminishing value of the family is the same as that of the Church; both the family and the Church impose the most amount of obligation and dependency on the individual.
And it is precisely for this reason that the 21st century Christian must value the family as much as it values the Church.
The Family Matters to the Church
Some will ask if Christians idolize the family, and the answer to that question is that some Christians do. The family is a direct reflection of the parents, so a parent’s main source of pride, joy, and sense of satisfaction may come from the family. It’s a lifelong project that is always being assessed by others. There are clear cases of idolizing the family.
But the Christian should understand that the family institution is one that both furthers the mission of God and is the mission of God realized. Or, as Geremy Keaton, senior director of counseling services at Focus on the Family, stated:
“We believe the bigger problem in our culture—even Christian culture—is not that we idolize family, it’s that we don’t value God’s aims for family enough. Family is our first ministry. We seek to live out the image of God in our family life, and the family carries out the message of Christ to a lost and dying world,” […]
“If Christians were to create a ranking system of relationships, God clearly comes before family members. That being said, a ranking system falls short. The commitments to God and family are intertwined when family life is lived out as a reflection of the Lord’s nature and work.”
Family is the primary time and place for faith to be enacted.
Likewise, it’s the primary vehicle for faith to be passed down.
In an article about a 2014 book Families and Faith: How Religion is Passed Down Across Generation, they talk with the books lead researcher, professor Vern Bengtson of the University of Southern California:
“Parents have more religious influence than they think,” write Bengtson and his two co-authors, Norella Putney and Susan Harris.”
More than strict church attendance, obedience to rules and guidelines, or teaching moral beliefs, Bengtson and his co-researchers found that strong emotional bonding is vital for children to adopt their parents’ religion.
“But what is really interesting is that, for religious transmission, having a close bond with one’s father matters even more than a close relationship with one’s mother,” Bengtson writes.
This should put all of us parents standing at attention. We should be on high alert, vigilantly examining our daily lives to sort out if we have a strong connection with our children and have exemplified the life of Christ to the best of our abilities.
It’s a funny thing; we are always trying to get our children’s attention. Yet it seems that we do not have to try very hard. Children naturally focus their attention on their parents; even adopting their parent’s bad examples.
But this puts us in a fortunate position. Its almost as if benefits to families in terms of faith and well-being are no coincidence to God’s instructions for families written in the Bible.
This also makes the future of the Church look a bit brighter when we see the family trends amongst Christians. Eric Kaufman of the University of London sees the connection between faith and family sizes and predicts an impact to the trend of secularization:
“The key factor is religion. Everywhere in the western world, women who attend religious services on a regular basis have considerably larger families than women who say they have no religion” […] “I project that secularisation will slow down and go into gradual reverse in Europe around 2050”
We have all seen the large Mormon families (and they are a perfect example of a growing religious demographic). While other religious groups aren’t exactly on pace with Mormons, Christians have more children than non-Christians. Having spent much time over the past few years with many homeschool families, I see it even more. With only three children, my wife and I are often the minority. And we see the devotion that families have to living as faithful servants to Christ is the same devotion they have to serving their children. Rather than be a point of mockery, when my wife and I see a large family that we can pretty accurately guess are homeschoolers, we see it as a beautiful thing; a family that is committed to Christ through producing children to grow as fellow servants.
One last thought; I spoke with a homeless man that has been walking around my neighborhood lately for a long time one day. He is a brother in Christ, so we shared some praise and wisdom, as well as sorrow. This man knew scripture. He knew theology. He knew philosophy. But he admitted that in his life, his connection to Family (both his birth family and looking to start a family of his own) was abysmal. He had the typical difficulties with birth family that led to typical social and psychological problems which led to typical addictions, even though he sounded thoroughly committed to the ideas of his faith in Christ. I wondered later if an improper connection to Family caused his faith to faulter.
All that to say, that the family is a critical part of the Christian life. And this is not to diminish the role that single or married folks with no children play in the family of God. The nuclear family is a microcosm of the family of God and we can be served by all members of the body of Christ. But the nuclear family is a God-ordained institution that must be upheld for its particular need in building and strengthening the faith of the Church.